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An American Realist 

Robert Redford and the façade of a nation

Wednesday, Oct 31 2007
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Although he plays a college professor in his latest film, Robert Redford was, by his own admission, never much of a student, consistently more interested in what was going on outside the classroom window than inside. But there’s one moment from Redford’s academic past that burns brightly in his memory. The year was 1950 and Redford was a junior-high student in Van Nuys, suffering through one of those standardized achievement tests that are the bane of every school kid’s existence. Suddenly, one particular section of the exam grabbed his attention. “There was this picture, and you had to figure out what was wrong with it,” Redford recalls. “The picture seemed to be totally perfect — a woman was standing on a porch with a broom, and a mailman who had just delivered the mail was talking to her. And I got so excited — I was going to find out what was wrong there!” Then Redford found the answer: The woman was wearing only one sock.

In the more than 50 years since that eureka moment, Robert Redford has stayed on the lookout for the subtle fissures in seemingly flawless façades, whether it be the American government’s veil of inviolability (All the President’s Men), broadcast television’s carefully stage-managed reality (Quiz Show) or the stiff upper lips of a tragedy-stricken suburban family (Ordinary People). Now, Redford is once again traversing the chasm between the American dream and the American reality in a new film, Lions for Lambs, that meets the War on Terror and a grab bag of other sociopolitical issues head-on, making for one of the year’s most provocative and polarizing moviegoing experiences.

Directed, produced by and starring Redford, Lions weaves an intricate tapestry of a failed America, beginning on an unnamed Southern California college campus, where a bright but slackerish student (newcomer Andrew Garfield) settles in for a conference with the political-science prof (Redford) who sees unrealized potential in the boy. At the same moment, in the corridors of Beltway power, a rising Republican senator (Tom Cruise) offers a seasoned reporter (Meryl Streep) an exclusive scoop about his new plan for winning the war in Afghanistan (and, by proxy, Iraq). Meanwhile, half a world away, where the senator’s strategy went into effect “10 minutes ago,” two U.S. soldiers find themselves stranded in enemy territory after their helicopter was shot down by Afghan insurgents. Providing a further point of connection, the soldiers are former students of the professor, whose advocacy of action over apathy led them to enlist in the first place.

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Simply put, Lions for Lambs (which screens as the opening-night attraction of the AFI Fest before opening nationwide on November 9) is a movie about people talking in a room. Or rather, four people talking in two rooms, hashing out political and personal ideologies while, on a mountaintop in Afghanistan, the lives of two men hang in the balance. Of course, what’s really at stake (in case you missed the point, which is pretty hard to do) is the future of our nation itself. It’s the sort of theatrical premise that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on one of the socially relevant 1960s television anthology series where Redford did some of his first screen acting. But if Lions for Lambs, which springs from the pen of 34-year-old screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan, is wordy and unsubtle in the extreme, it’s also that rare Hollywood movie that fully possesses the strength of its own convictions, and which pursues them with a commitment and intellectual rigor far removed from the reductive faux humanism of Rendition and In the Valley of Elah.

“In the current climate, audiences are accustomed to and seem to crave hard, visceral action films where you go inside the pores of the wound and everything’s moving at 150 miles per hour,” Redford says, offering a fairly succinct description of the other Carnahan-scripted political drama currently in release, The Kingdom.

It’s a rainy October morning in Boston, where the filmmaker is winding up a college promotional tour that has included stops at Berkeley and Harvard. And when he arrives (late, as is his custom) for our interview, there’s no mistaking the wiry figure in sweater, jeans and brown loafers being ushered through the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel, no matter that the famous flaxen hair is mostly hidden beneath a Red Sox cap, the blazing blue eyes concealed behind aviator shades. For all his interest in the misleading surfaces of things, Redford himself is a failure at camouflage — an asset if you want to be one of the most recognizable movie stars on the planet and a liability if you want to be taken seriously as a film artist. More on that a bit later.

For now, though, our conversation centers on other matters. At first, Redford says, he wondered if Lions for Lambs might work better as a play. “Then I thought: Wait a minute. How many times are you going to get a script that’s really able to touch on some of the issues that concern you? The fact that they’re talking heads in a room is something you should embrace and figure out if you can make it dynamic enough. I started to see the film in a new way, and I got excited about it. I said, ‘I think I’ll take a chance on this.’ ”

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